Out of fear of that his speech might provoke the audience and incite violence, the University of Cape Town has withdrawn their invitation to Danish editor Flemming Rose to speak at the TB Davie Lecture organized by the Academic Freedom Committee.
Rose, who is best known for his involvement in the publication of the controversial Prophet Muhammad cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, has since become a staunch advocate for free speech and defender of free press. From lectures at major institutes, to the publication of his book The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Rose has reflected greatly upon the controversy that ensued since his 2005 decision to publish 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed and the broader implications of a rising global epidemic of fear and intimidation that has led to censorship and stifled free speech.
Last year, in recognition of his position in global free speech debate, the Academic Freedom Committee extended the opportunity Rose to speak at their annual event, which they describe as a “flagship lecture to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech.” On July 12, however, a letter was sent by UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price to the committee, rescinding the invitation on the basis that it would be “extremely unwise” for Rose to participate in the lecture.
Hiding behind an acknowledgement of “the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus,” the letter implies that providing Rose with a platform to discuss such limitations could potentially “provoke conflict” and would pose a security threat to the college campus. Moreover, it states that having Rose participate in the TB Davie lecture “might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus,” adding:
We did consider the option of holding a debate with Mr. Rose instead of a lecture. Our consultations suggest that many in the Muslim community would welcome this and a number of leaders indicated that in other circumstances, they would be willing to share the platform with Mr. Rose and to subject his views to vigorous critique. However, Mr. Rose is seen by many as a persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence.
As can be imagined, the decision by the university was not well received in the free speech community. Jodie Ginsberg, the chief executive of Index on Censorship commented that the decision is “a huge blow to free expression and academic freedom and UCT’s attempts to dress this up as otherwise are to be condemned in the strongest terms.”
The Academic Freedom Committee themselves issued a statement in which they expressed their upset over a decision that they see as propagating the knee-jerk reaction to censor when difficult matters are discussed. They write:
Academic freedom is severely compromised when security and other pragmatic considerations preclude inviting speakers who – while controversial – in no way violate our Constitutional limitations on free speech… We regret the Executive’s decision and what it reveals about the limited scope of academic freedom at UCT. Ours should be a campus on which people are free to express and contest ideas, even unpopular ones.
Rose himself has responded to the decision, calling Vice-Chancellor Price “disgraceful,” accusatory, and libelous, putting “the blame on me instead of taking responsibility for his decision.” Although Rose and his colleagues are no stranger to academic controversy, it still comes as a shock that an academic institution where intelligent and productive debate is meant to happen, would make transparent excuses to censor free speech. “It’s the heckler’s veto,” writes Rose, adding:
Mr. Price talks about “the harm that unlimited freedom of expression could cause.” I don’t know any person including myself who is in favor of unlimited free speech, that’s a caricature of free speech activists. What I oppose is the kind of “I am in favor of free speech, but”-position that Mr. Price provides a classic example of. His approach to free speech would make it possible to ban any speech.
Even a decade since the publication of the 12 cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, we are still fighting an uphill battle for free speech, one that has been marked by violence against cartoonists. That said, those like Rose have dedicated themselves to fighting the battle and exercising their right to free expression, calling out those who would censor it out of fear.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!